Years ago I lived in a house that was undergoing renovations. The brunt of the work focused on creating more space, and by the end of the project the workers had enlarged many of the rooms, giving the house a seemingly new and improved flare. Yet, to their horror, as one of the workers bounded up the stairs to the second floor, the house began to sway back and forth. It so happened that they had taken down certain walls that bore the weight of the structure. Without these walls in place, the house lost its strong foundation and was affected by the slightest movement. It is clear in all construction projects that all of the "finish" work must be done after the house has been founded upon strong, weight-bearing pillars.
The same must be true in a child's formation. If the educational pillars are not in place, then all of the knowledge gained in specialized disciplines will be shaken by the slightest wind—whether it be from society, peers, or from powers and principalities. This principle applies from the very beginning stages. Often parents assume that any school will suffice in the education and intellectual formation of their children. Yet just as the structure and foundation of a building upholds and affects the entire house, so too the educational structure should be wholly integrated with the rest of a child’s life. For this reason it is important to be mindful of the three weight-bearing pillars of a child's education, which are primarily the Church, the home and the school. Imagine the results, when these three spheres of influence are all working towards the same goal.
Educating the Whole Person
The mission of an Orthodox Christian education must go beyond a technical transmission of skills and information. Education involves the whole person and the goal of education is holiness. The saints present an example of a complete education. Memorizing facts and data, and even learning skills, does not make wise men and women, it does not produce saints. With T.S. Eliot we are to ask: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is all the knowledge we have lost in information?" The children need provisions for a holy life both in the world and also for their eternal existence with Christ and the saints in heaven. The three pillars of education give us a way to begin this process.
The Church is the most prominent and foundational of the three pillars. St. Timothy calls it the pillar and ground of the Truth (I Tim 3:15). The home and the school must be based upon this foundation. When we are baptized in Christ, we become part of His Body—the Church—and are re-planted into new soil. We must live out this reality consciously and actively. The children and parents need to know the fullness of the Faith. It is good to know the specifics as well as the general concepts, to have a grasp of the dogmas as well as the practices. The children should be familiar with the life of the Church. Being able to read the Psalms and actively participate in the daily prayers and services are some of the fruits of this experience. We must teach and encourage the children to inhale deeply the air of the Church—to stand boldly upon its foundation.
Family life is both precious and vital. It compliments the life in the school and the Church. The family and the home are close to the heart of the Church and are meant to be the little Church, where the communal worship is extended and its fruits made manifest. The common life of a family acts as a garden in which we sow for a time and then perpetually harvest. This is where the heart of a child is formed, the feeling for prayer, the zeal for the commandments and the love of God and neighbor. The love of God is nourished within the children while they stand before the icons during morning and evening prayers. Father and mother, brothers and sisters are the first neighbors we are required to love. The exalted life of Heaven dwells within this cave of Bethlehem—the home. The children's future longings, loves and desires are formed here. Children are commanded to honor their parents, and we teach and expect them to do so. But parents are commanded to raise their children in the “admonition of the Lord.” This means that they need to see the Orthodox Faith in action, within the context of their own home.
If our children are rich but not generous, if they are smart but arrogant, if they have learned how to be a doctor but have not learned humility, can we claim that they are educated? We should always keep our eye on the ultimate goal. Parents are willing to make sacrifices for sports and social events, but not for feasts and vigils. The children miss out on the life of the Church and its importance is undermined. Parents need to instill in their children the significance of the spiritual life. We are inspired by the stories of someone who goes from rags to riches but how much more inspiring is it when the zeal for God is awakened.
Parents have a profound impact on their children; but what happens when their work in the home meets the locker room, the college dorm or the classroom, where their minds and hearts are challenged away from the Church? This is a problem of temptation, and their inability to defend their faith in their own minds against the contrary views being presented to them in the presence of their peers. We need to teach them how to love their peers, explain their Faith and influence instead of being influenced. This work is done at home and can be facilitated by an Orthodox school, the third pillar that helps them interpret the world through the Light of Christ.
The bridge between the home and the Church (and servant of both) is the school. We have become used to schools challenging and contradicting the faith of our children. An Orthodox curriculum, however, shows that the world exists in light of the Incarnation of Christ. If the school is able to present history, science, language arts and all of the subjects as expressions of this reality, then the children will be given the depth of understanding of the world that will allow them to live and flourish in any environment. They will also be well equipped to walk in Truth in the midst of the world. The school, therefore, will be a workshop for servants of Christ to enter into human society and make a difference. They will learn to think, discern, and speak intelligently and convincingly in the context of the world—in a language that non-Christians can also understand. Just as a brain surgeon's training must be thorough in their vital work, so too our children must know their Faith thoroughly and with a firm understanding of its relationship with the world around them. Christian children must be prepared to be witnesses and apologists, defenders and promoters, students and teachers in this world. An Orthodox school environment, or at least an awareness of the Orthodox approach towards education, is essential when talking about the final pillar of education.
Our goal should be to make all our life dedicated to God. We often think about Church in this way. But considering the three pillars—the Church, the home and the school—as means towards the same end, gives us a good perspective on the educational arenas for our children. St. John Chrysostom exhorts us not destroy to the spiritual life of our children. We need to pay attention to these three arenas of life—the Church, home and school—in order to fulfill our Lord's command to “suffer the little children to come unto Me.” This means that parents, godparents, educators and pastors need to labor to ensure that all three pillars are in order, and ready to support the edifice.
How awesome is the responsibility of the education of children! What a wonderful reward it is to see the next generation of children alive in Christ!
The Very Rev. Fr. Patrick Tishel is the Pastor of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Allston, Massachusetts, of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., Canada, & Australia. He is also the Headmaster of the school and teacher at St. Herman of Alaska Christian School (grades K-8), an Orthodox Christian school founded in 1991, which was established based on the principle of the unity between the home, the school and the Church. (For more information visit www.sainthermanschool.org). Fr. Patrick has been the representative for his diocese to SCOBA, he is the OCF Chaplain at Boston University, and has been a presenter and speaker at various conferences. His wife Popadia Paula is a full time nurse and actively shares in the ministry of the parish. They have two children, Michael, 23 and Vera, 27.